Thomas Schreiner’s Commentary on Hebrews
Credo Magazine contributor, Thomas Schreiner, has written a new commentary on the book of Hebrews (B&H). Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says this about his book:
In his volume on “Hebrews,” Thomas R. Schreiner says, “The words of Jesus on the cross, ‘it is finished’ (John 19:30) capture the theology of Hebrews. My aim in this commentary is to focus on the biblical theology of the letter. The emphasis on biblical theology shows up especially in the introduction and conclusion where theological structures and themes are considered. The commentary will conclude, after presenting an exegesis of each chapter, with a discussion of some major theological themes in Hebrews. “
B&H: You not only wrote the first volume for the commentary series but serve as one of the general editors. How is the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (BTCP) series unique? What sets it apart?
Thomas Schreiner: What sets it apart is conveyed in the title for the series. The series is distinct in its focus on the biblical theology of each book. We have many commentaries that do an excellent job of unpacking the structure of the book being studied. They are also excellent in explaining the contribution of each verse. The BTCP series also explains each verse, but it does something different as well. The role each book plays in the whole canon of scripture is explored. Hence, the function of the particular book in relation to the whole canon is unpacked. Also, the major themes of the book in question are set forth. In a commentary, one can’t pull the threads of a theme together since we have verse-by-verse exposition, but in our series the major themes are explicated for readers.
B&H: Hebrews is filled with references to and discussions of Old Testament figures and institutions: Sabbath rest, Melchizedek, old covenant regulations, the Levitical priesthood, etc. What would you say to the pastor who is preaching from Hebrews and struggling with how to help his congregation see the relevance of these issues?
TS: As the question indicates, Hebrews is difficult, for no one in our congregations is tempted to go back to Levitical sacrifices! On the one hand, we have to do careful exegesis to ensure we truly understand the message of the letter. On the other hand, we need to explain why it matters. Let’s consider an example. Why does it matter that Christ’s sacrifice is superior to Levitical sacrifices? The author emphasizes that Christ’s blood truly cleanses our guilt, and thus we can enter God’s presence boldly and confidently. As believers, we can be full of joy because our evil is cleansed forever. People today aren’t tempted to offer animal sacrifices, but they struggle mightily with guilt. They aren’t tempted to look to Levitical priests for salvation, but they find great comfort in knowing that Jesus is an exalted priest who intercedes for them at the right hand of God. They aren’t looking to the old covenant, but they glory in the new covenant truth that God has inscribed his law on their hearts.
B&H: One of the most controversial features of Hebrews is the author’s so-called “warning passages,” which interpreters have variously explained. What role do you understand these to play in the author’s overall purpose?
TS: The warning passages are difficult and controversial, and fine Christians disagree on their meaning. I maintain that the warnings are written to Christians. The author teaches, then, that if we fall away we will be damned. The warnings were written to arouse us from our lethargy so that we will keep following Christ to the end. The warnings are not a call to works-righteousness. No, as Hebrews 11 teaches us, they are a call to faith, a call to trust God until the last day. I also argue that the warnings are one of the means God uses to preserve his elect. In other words, no true believer will ever fall away. God keeps his own, for we have been sanctified once-for-all by the death of Jesus Christ (Heb 10:10, 14). The Lord has written his law on our hearts (Heb 8:8-12). Thus, God uses the warnings to keep his own children on the right road until the end.
B&H: Many Christians get their theology largely from Paul, especially when it comes to the atonement. What does Hebrews add to our understanding of the atonement that can’t be found in Paul?
TS: Hebrews and Paul share some of the themes about the atonement in common. For example, they both believe that Christ died as our substitute, taking the penalty we deserved. Hebrews emphasizes, however, that Jesus died as our Melchizedekian priest. We don’t read that in Paul or any other NT writer! The priestly work of Jesus Christ comes to the center stage in Hebrews. We are not surprised, then, that Hebrews speaks especially in cultic categories. Paul uses cultic images as well, and so we don’t want to overemphasize the point. But Paul often uses the legal language of justification. Hebrews uses the cultic language of being cleansed and washed of our sins. It picks up the sacrificial language of the OT, especially from the Day of Atonement, and applies it to the work of Jesus Christ. Hebrews argues, then, that in Jesus we have a better priest, a better covenant, and a better sacrifice.
Additionally, here are two excerpts.
From the Introduction:
The words of Jesus on the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), capture the theology of Hebrews. My aim in this commentary is to focus on the letter’s biblical theology. The emphasis on biblical theology shows up especially in the introduction and conclusion of this commentary where I consider theological structures and themes.
In the introduction I will examine four different structures that are woven into the entire letter: (1) promise/fulfillment; (2) eschatology; (3) typology; and (4) spatial orientation (which can also be described as the relationship between heaven and earth in the letter). The commentary will conclude, after presenting an exegesis of each chapter, with a discussion of some major theological themes in Hebrews.
Most modern commentaries begin with significant introductions and then conduct an intensive exegesis of the text, chapter-by-chapter and verse-by-verse. By way of contrast, this introduction and the commentary are relatively brief and nontechnical. With the proliferation of commentaries today, a new commentary should have a distinctive approach. We now have many excellent commentaries on Hebrews that examine the letter in some detail. Many of these commentaries provide a useful function in that they draw on other parallels from both Jewish and Hellenistic literature to illuminate Hebrews. The advantage of such an approach is that the reader is plunged into the cultural world of the author.
On the other hand, the careful sifting of various traditions may cause the reader to lose track of the letter’s argument. At the same time, the author’s theology may be muted, not because it isn’t recognized but because it may be difficult to follow in the welter of information given to readers.
I hope a commentary that probes the theology of Hebrews will prove to be helpful. I have been helped by many scholars in preparing this commentary, especially those who have written in-depth commentaries and those who have written monographs on the letter. No one writes from an objective standpoint, and hence I should state up front that I write as an evangelical Christian who believes that the Scriptures are the living and authoritative Word of God.
Excerpt on warning passages in Hebrews:
The warnings given to the readers fit with their status as sojourners and exiles. In that sense the readers are like the Israelites who were in the wilderness before finding rest in the land of Canaan (3:12–4:13). The readers are on a journey to enter their heavenly rest, but they face perils on the way, just as Israel did on the way to the land of promise. The readers are warned not to harden their hearts and rebel against God. Israel gave way to unbelief and disobedience, and the readers must not follow their example. Unbelief and disobedience threaten because the wilderness period is exasperating, exhausting, and trying. Believers long to be in the heavenly city and to enjoy their heavenly rest, but instead they encounter the pressures and opposition of life in the world.
Their experience as “foreigners and temporary residents” (11:13) is also comparable to the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These men also received promises that were not realized during their lifetimes, but they persevered knowing that a homeland, a city awaited them (11:10, 13–16; 12:22; 13:14). But life in the wilderness, life as exiles, is frustrating and can be dispiriting. Chapter 11 was written so the readers would keep trusting in God and would put their hope in him until the promises were realized. The readers should understand that life as exiles is not unique to them. The saints who preceded them also lived without seeing the final fulfillment of the promise. As exiles they must put their trust in God’s promises for a happy future, believing that he will bring to pass what he has pledged.
A specific window into life in the wilderness is provided in 10:32–34. The readers experienced all kinds of sufferings: verbal abuse and discrimination, the plundering of their possessions and economic deprivation. Perhaps they wanted to come under the umbrella of Judaism since it was a legal religion in the Roman Empire. Then they would be free from the constant attacks that plagued them. The author encourages them to endure in faith. Life as exiles, life in the wilderness, is like growing up as children in a family (12:4–13). God is using their time in the wilderness to educate and train them.
The author uses here metaphors from education and physical training. They are in God’s school and are being trained like athletes. God’s purpose and design are for their holiness so they will be mature Christians. As parents discipline their children, so they will live productive and fruitful lives, so God is using the time in exile to form the character of his children.
God knows they are in the wilderness, and Jesus himself has experienced the sorrow and anguish of human life (2:17–18; 4:14–16; 5:7–8). The warnings and encouragements in the letter are intended to bring them to their heavenly rest, to the city to come. The days of exile and wandering will soon be over, and thus the readers must follow the example of Jesus and the saints who preceded them, trusting and obeying God until the end.
Furthermore, they have access to God’s presence through the atoning work of Jesus. They can enter God’s presence with confidence and joy, knowing that he will grant strength and grace for every trial (4:14–16). They shouldn’t shrink back from God in fear but come with boldness since Jesus is their great high priest who has cleansed all their sins (10:19–22).